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Let’s Go to the Movies!: Max Steiner

Music such as the theme from A Summer Place or “Tara’s Theme” from Gone with the Wind are instantly recognizable melodies that put the listener right back in the film. However, many aren’t aware of the life and story of the man behind such recognizable tunes – Max Steiner.

Max Steiner was born in 1888 in Vienna, in what was then the Austro-Hungarian Empire. He was born into an upper middle-class family involved in the Viennese music and theatre scene – his father was an impresario and his mother was a dancer-turned-restauranteur.  Steiner’s grandfather Maximillian Steiner (for whom he is named) was the manager of the Theatre an der Wien, and was also close with Johann Strauss II, who wrote many famous operettas for the Theatre in the second half of the 19th century (including Die Fledermaus and The Gypsy Baron).

Steiner showed a precociousness for music at an early age, starting piano lessons at the age of four and writing his own compositions. He later attended the Imperial Academy of Music when he was 15, being privately tutored by both Robert Fuchs and Gustav Mahler. Steiner was so talented that not only did he win a gold medal, but he also finished the four-year course of study in just one year.

After graduating, the 16-year-old began his career in the theatre scenes of Vienna and London. Mainly working as a conductor, Steiner was also keen on writing his own theatrical works. The outbreak of World War I forced him to remain in London as an enemy alien, but since he was well-regarded in the theatre scene of London at the time, he had friends in high places. As Steiner himself recalls: “Then came the First World War…but artists are luckier than most other people and through the Duke of Westminster, who seemed to be a fan of mine, I got my exit papers to go to America. However, my possessions and my money were impounded, and I arrived in New York in December of 1914 with thirty-two dollars in my pocket.”

After arriving in New York City, Steiner worked as a music copyist with music publishing houses, which eventually led to work on Broadway musicals. Steiner worked for the next 15 years as an orchestrator, musical director, arranger, and conductor for some of Broadway’s biggest composers, such as Jerome Kern, George Gershwin, and Victor Herbert.

In the 1920s, silent motion pictures were gaining popularity across the United States, and so was the early instances of film music. As film music transitioned from live to pre-recorded, and as the studio system was solidifying the structure and business of making movies, these studios hired composers, conductors, and arrangers to work on their films. Max Steiner was one such hire, and he composed his first full film score with RKO pictures in 1931 for the movie Cimarron.

Motion picture poster for "Gone with the Wind" showing Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh in costume.

Motion picture poster for “Gone with the Wind” showing Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh in costume. Lithograph, 1939. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/pp.print

Soon, Steiner was a regular in Hollywood, composing scores for over 100 films in the 1930s. In 1933, Steiner composed the soundtrack for the blockbuster King Kong, which brought him major attention in Hollywood. Steiner was nominated eight times in the 1930s for the Academy Award for Best Original Score (sometimes twice in the same year), and won in 1935 for his score to The Informer. Steiner closed out the decade with perhaps one of the best-known film scores of all time – that to Victor Fleming’s Gone with the Wind.

Success continued for Steiner who composed at an astonishing rate. He composed the soundtracks for such films as: Casablanca (1942) [he did not compose the famous tune “As Time Goes By,” however], Arsenic and Old Lace (1944), Passage to Marseille (1944), Mildred Pierce (1945), The Big Sleep (1946), Life with Father (1947), The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948), The Glass Menagerie (1950), The Caine Mutiny (1954), The Searchers (1956), and A Summer Place (1959).

Steiner passed away after a long and illustrious career at the age of 83 in 1971. All told, Steiner composed the soundtracks to over 300 film scores in his career, was nominated for 24 Academy Awards for Best Score, and won the award three times. It is safe to say that Steiner had a major impact on the “sound” of Hollywood in its golden era, and that his influence on film music can be felt to this day.

If you are interested in learning more about Max Steiner’s music, or the man himself, you may wish to consider downloading the following titles from BARD! Please note that all materials listed below are also available to borrow by mail, not only through BARD. Please contact the Music Section to borrow talking books on digital cartridge or to borrow hard copies of braille music. Call us at 1-800-424-8567, ext. 2, or e-mail us at [email protected].

Books from the NLS Music Collection

Audio

Brown, Bill. Theme from “A Summer Place.” For piano. (DBM02603)

Braille

Just Standards Real Book. Contains Theme from “A Summer Place.” (BRM36374)

Steiner, Max. “Someday I’ll Meet You Again,” from Passage to Marseille. For voice with piano accompaniment. (BRM21178)

From the General NLS Collection:

Smith, Steven C. Music by Max Steiner: The Epic Life of Hollywood’s Most Influential Composer. (DB 100285)

And if you are interested in reading any of the original novels that some of the above movies were based on, you may wish to download these titles from the general NLS collection on BARD:

Audio

Cain, James M. Mildred Pierce. (DB 30897)

Day, Clarence. Life with Father. (DB 06791)

Traven, B. The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. (DB 45216)

Mitchell, Margaret. Gone with the Wind. (DB 33082)

Williams, Tennessee. The Glass Menagerie. (DB 45893)

Wouk, Herman. The Caine Mutiny. (DB 31442)

Braille

Cain, James M. Mildred Pierce. (BR 08162)

Mitchell, Margaret. Gone with the Wind. (BR 11427)

Williams, Tennessee. The Glass Menagerie. (BR 11524)

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